Happy 60th birthday: Algol 60

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60 is the title of a 16-page paper appearing in the May 1960 issue of the Communication of the ACM. Probably one of the most influential programming languages, and a language that readers may never have heard of.

During the 1960s there were three well known, widely used, programming languages: Algol 60, Cobol, and Fortran.

When somebody created a new programming languages Algol 60 tended to be their role-model. A few of the authors of the Algol 60 report cited beauty as one of their aims, a romantic notion that captured some users imaginations. Also, the language was full of quirky, out-there, features; plenty of scope for pin-head discussions.

Cobol appears visually clunky, is used by business people and focuses on data formatting (a deadly dull, but very important issue).

Fortran spent 20 years catching up with features supported by Algol 60.

Cobol and Fortran are still with us because they never had any serious competition within their target markets.

Algol 60 had lots of competition and its successor language, Algol 68, was groundbreaking within its academic niche, i.e., not in a developer useful way.

Language family trees ought to have Algol 60 at, or close to their root. But the Algol 60 descendants have been so successful, that the creators of these family trees have rarely heard of it.

In the US the ‘military’ language was Jovial, and in the UK it was Coral 66, both derived from Algol 60 (Coral 66 was the first language I used in industry after graduating). I used to hear people saying that Jovial was derived from Fortran; another example of people citing the language the popular language know.

Algol compiler implementers documented their techniques (probably because they were often academics); ALGOL 60 Implementation is a real gem of a book, and still worth a read today (as an introduction to compiling).

Algol 60 was ahead of its time in supporting undefined behaviors 😉 Such as: “The effect, of a go to statement, outside a for statement, which refers to a label within the for statement, is undefined.”

One feature of Algol 60 rarely adopted by other languages is its parameter passing mechanism, call-by-name (now that lambda expressions are starting to appear in widely used languages, call-by-name has a kind-of comeback). Call-by-name essentially has the same effect as textual substitution. Given the following procedure (it’s not a function because it does not return a value):

procedure swap (a, b);
   integer a, b, temp;
temp := a;
a := b;
b:= temp

the effect of the call: swap(i, x[i]) is:

  temp := i;
  i := x[i];
  x[i] := temp

which might come as a surprise to some.

Needless to say, programmers came up with ‘clever’ ways of exploiting this behavior; the most famous being Jensen’s device.

The follow example of go to usage appears in: International Standard 1538 Programming languages – ALGOL 60 (the first and only edition appeared in 1984, after most people had stopped using the language):

go to if Ab < c then L17
  else g[if w < 0 then 2 else n]

Orthogonality of language use won out over the goto FUD.

The Software Preservation Group is a great resource for Algol 60 books and papers.